Friday, 30 November 2012

Barnet Council Budget Overview and Scrutiny Committee review One Barnet

Lats night I witnessed the complete demise of democracy in Barnet. Or rather I didn't, because I was so angry I had to leave. The meeting started at 7pm, with public questions. Questions there certainly were, but the answers? There weren't any. The purpose of public questions is to engage with the public and to help local people understand the democratic process. Resident after resident asked reasonable questions and got non answers. The packed public gallery was shocked.

Then Babara Jacobson, a local resident addressed the meeting. She was representing the Barnet Alliance for Public Services. The response to her of (conservative) councillors was a tad disappointing. They rather missed the point completely. One asked about her reference to the fact that at a residents meeting, only one out of 40 residents was in favour of outsourcing. He said "Surely if you are a protest meeting, then everyone will be against the proposition". If the meeting was a protest meeting, this would be true, however the meeting was a residents meeting comprising all manner of people, attending out of curiosity. It seems to escape the (conservative) councillors that people of all parties and persuasions care about Barnet and they have failed to make the case for what they are proposing.

I was rather infuriated by the treatment of Ms Jacobson. There was no attempt made to address her concerns. In fact the relevant points she made were rather ignored and she was treated in a most patronising fashion. She got a round of applause from those assembled.

We then had the start of the real business. The chair of the meeting, Councillor Tony Finn outlined the "themes" he wanted to explore. At this moment, Councillor Hugh Rayner, one of the more sensible and robust Tories stood up and announced he "had a problem" with the whole scrutiny process. He asked what the purpose of the scrutiny meeting was. Was it simply to "allow members to understand the contract a bit more" or did they actually have the power to change things they didn't like. This is a question which I'd been wondering. The answer was referred to the legal team. The answer was disgusting. Yes things could be changed, so long as they were typos which had been missed in the drafting. The substance of the contract could not be changed. All the scrutiny committee could do was advise the cabinet whether they should accept or reject the contract and whatever they decided was not binding.

In other words, the scrutiny committee of Barnet Council is in the same situation as everyone else in Barnet (bar the eleven members of the Council Cabinet). If they want they can do their job properly. If they do, they can spend hours on end studying the contract, finding all manner of problems and issues. They can then issue their recommendations, which if the council cabinet are so minded can be completely ignored.

Councillor Rayner then made a comment that "all we can do is a lot of posturing on both sides of the debate here". Labour objected "We don't posture". Councillor Rayner laughed, "Oh yes you do, we all do".

At this, I realised that we were all completely wasting our time attending this charade. It was a talking shop, a box ticking exercise. The only councillors and the only meetings that matter are the cabinet. There are over 300,000 people in Barnet, but eleven people have total power to do as they please. It is rather like the Chinese politbureau, electing a new leader behind closed doors. There is no democracy and no democratic process. Scrutiny is a charade. Barbara Jacobson detailed how she filled in a consultation questionairre and then found out that what she was being consulted on was irrelevant as the council had already announced that they had made the decision.

It then occurred to me that by attending the meeting and writing a blog detailing what had happened, I was in effect collaborating with a dictatorial, anti democratic process. Everyone in the room was giving a veneer  of respectability to a bunch of scoundrels who had usurped the democratic process. Simply by participating, Barbara Jacobson and all of the people who had asked questions had given legitimacy to a charade. They had spent time asking questions of a committee with no power and no role whatsoever in the process. There was only one question which any member of the public should have asked "Why are we wasting money on this charade of a meeting and why are we paying allowances to councillors for participating?". At this, I decided that there was absolutely no point staying. I went home and spent all night musing on what had happened.

The eighty or so people who had turned up, asked questions had completely wasted their time. It is clear that the only people and the only committee who matter are the cabinet. The time for going along with the charade has passed. I have sadly concluded that until such time as Barnet Council abolishes the ridiculous cabinet system and returned to a properly democratically acountable process for decision making, we are all wasting our time attending these ridiculous meetings. r

That does not mean that there is nothing we can do. On the contrary, there is plenty. It is called "direct action". If the cabinet won't listen to reasonable debate in the council chamber with our elected representatives and residents, then we have to use other methods to get our message over. The Occupy movement in Friern Barnet Library have shown how legal direct action can bear results. There are already legal challenges to One Barnet taking place. I would suggest that there are other ways to get the message over. Barnet residents should consider lobbying Councillors (peacefully) at their place of work. I would suggest that leaflets are handed out to customers and colleagues of Barnet councillors detailing what they are voting for in One Barnet. As they are prepared to throw 300 Barnet residents out of work, it is only fair that their customers and colleagues have some idea what their ethics and morals are. I am by nature a polite and reasonable person. I do not seek confrontation or to embarrass people publicly. I do however believe that when people treat you with contempt, you are entitled to stand up for yourself. The cabinet need to realise that people are not prepared to be ridden roughshod over in this fashion. If that means a small, polite, well mannered group standing outside the businesses and organisations where the cabinet work, handing out leaflets detailing what these eleven people are up to, so be it. If they are proud of their actions, they really shouldn't mind, should they. This sort of action is how people in liberal democracies protect their rights and freedoms.

If you don't care about the total destruction of our democracy, please sit on your arse and do nothing. If you actually care, then the time has come to do something which the cabinet cannot ignore. I would suggest we start with a symbolic lobby of the business run by the Leader of the Council. I suggest we distrubute leaflets saying "This business is run by Richard Cornelius, Leader of Barnet Council, he is championing a project which will destroy 300 jobs in the London Borough of Barnet. His Council runs using a cabinet system, which means there is no democratic accountability at all. Local people have been forbidden from seeing any proper information about the outsourcing programme which is destroying these jobs and even the councils own scrutiny committee has been told it is not allowed to change contracts which are bad for people of Barnet and which may cost residents thousands of pounds. We ask you to consider whether you consider demoracy important. We believe that democratic accountablity is a paramount principle of our society. Whilst we are not suggesting that you use another business, we believe that people should understand the ethics of people who run the companies of which they are customers".

On a personal level I like Richard Cornelius. I despair that things have come to this. This is what happens when reasonable people are pushed too far. I would not be suggesting this if there was any way that proper democratic scrutiny and accountability could be shown to be working. The only good thing to come from the charade was that Hugh Rayner made me realise that participating in this shame is not a waste of time, it is actually collaboration with a system which is travesty.


Duncan Macdonald said...

The Cabinet system is terrible. As you say it centralises all the power in the hands of a small cabal. Scrutiny is totally ineffective and powerless under the cabinet system.

The problem is that a large number of Conservative voters simply don't use the vast majority of council services and therefore don't care about them As long as their bins are emptied they will keep voting tory.

Morris Hickey said...

Bwian was on tonight's BBC1 news parroting his apparent opposition to One Barnet - opposition that seemed singularly absent prior to his dismissal from the cabinet.